Review: OBLIVION

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It took almost 5 months, but I’m finally here with my first full review of a 2013 movie. Yeah, I sorta reviewed Olympus Has Fallen [HERE], but that was mostly so I could make fun of it. Oblivion is worthy of an actual review. It is a semi-thought-provoking (high praise!), beautifully crafted and designed sci-fi film with some cool ideas and a few new twists on some old genre concepts. This is the second film from director Joseph Kosinksi, a former commercials director who made his features debut in 2010 with one of the most overhyped movies of all-time, Tron: Legacy, an interesting looking but ultimately disappointing film. No matter that film’s storytelling flaws, it was abundantly clear that Kosinski has talent and was worthy of getting another shot in the big-budget arena. He shows that again here. It also doesn’t hurt your prospects when Tom Cruise agrees to be your leading man.

Cruise plays Jack Harper, a sort of futuristic blue collar guy, who is one of the last humans left on Earth, tasked with repairing defense drones responsible for protecting the remaining human technology on the planet from alien “scavengers”. As the film develops, Jack’s one human relationship (with Andrea Riseborough‘s character Victoria, his co-worker and lover) is put to the test as his natural curiosity leads him to discover that all may not be as it seems. DUN DUN DUN! Or something like that. You’ve seen the damn trailers, and I hate writing synopses.

GENERAL THOUGHTS

I enjoyed the film quite a bit, enough to say that it’s my favorite movie of 2013. Take that with a grain of salt, however, because this has not been a very good year at the movies thus far. If you like gorgeous sci-fi visuals and futuristic technology, this will tickle your fancy. All of the film’s technical merits are A+ (sound design, visual effects, music, photography, production design). You’ll recognize familiar concepts and plot devices from older, better sci-fi stories, but there’s enough new stuff here to hold your interest. Cruise carries the film beautifully, though he’s the only one who really gets anything meaty to do from an acting standpoint, which is mostly the script’s fault.

Off we go. As always, I do not hold back on SPOILERS, so be warned. There are some big plot twists during the film, and if you’d rather go in unsullied, see the movie first and read this later. Or don’t. See if I care!

WHAT I LIKED

The visual design of the film. Joseph Kosinski is a brilliant visualist, and it’s to his credit that his vision was carried out so exquisitely by the art department, camera crew and visual effects teams. The movie was shot at some incredible Icelandic locations by Claudio Miranda, who (wrongly) won an Oscar last month for his cinematography on Life of Pi. It was shot digitally, is razor sharp and gorgeous to look at. It’s very…how shall we say, clean looking; even the desolate, ruined landscapes are pretty to look at.

In particular, the Sky Tower set, where Jack and Victoria live/work, is off-the-charts cool. I want to live there (with Andrea Riseborough, or one of her clones) immediately. That set is all practical, though I’m not quite sure how they did that amazing transparent pool, which is one of the coolest, most beautiful things I’ve ever seen I’ve ever seen in a movie. Tom Cruise’s podship is also pretty awesome, and it looks so real because they actually built it, as opposed to having the actors sit in a seat surrounded by 4 walls of green screen.

sky towerI’ll have one of those, please.

I love the fact that they shot as much of the movie in camera as they could. The exterior locations in Iceland and California are incredible and REAL. They used CGI to enhance or add things to the scenery, but never to create the entire scene, which I appreciate. I loved the aerial shots of barren wastelands that were once human cities, where almost nothing recognizable remains (except, strangely, for the important monuments in Washington, which somehow escaped being completely erased from the landscape like everything else- funny how that works).

The visual effects, handled primarily by Digital Domain, are incredible. I especially like the drones, those menacing white orbs. There’s one long tracking shot where one of them infiltrates the human “resistance” compound, where we follow the drone as it flies around killing people, around corners, up and down the various levels of the compound. Very cool. There’s also a great action sequence, very Star Wars-y in nature, where some drones chase Cruise in his ship through a valley in very tight quarters. The movie isn’t action-heavy, which I actually found refreshing. 2 or 3 exceptional action sequences are better than 5 or 6 average ones, which should go without saying. Problem is, today’s audiences expect an action scene every 10 minutes, which makes it really hard to do scenes that are truly impressive that simultaneously drive the story forward. That was not an issue in this movie.

I could watch this shit all day:

Also really cool:

Tom Cruise & Andrea Riseborough. They are an effective [acting] team. I like seeing new faces in these big movies (you know, as opposed to seeing Bradley Cooper and Emma Stone in every other movie for the next 3 years), and my god, what a face. Seriously, how beautiful is this woman?

andrea-riseborough

Andrea-Riseborough-ImageO, HAI!
Moar movies with her in them, please.

The British-born Riseborough is an experienced actress, but this is obviously the biggest thing she’s been in yet. She’s really good in the film. I hope to see a lot more of her in the future. IF YA KNOW WHAT I MEAN! (just kidding) (not really)

The other actors were fine, but unexceptional. It’s cool to see Jamie Lannister Nikolaj Coster-Waldau on the big screen again, even if his role is paper-thin (I think he literally has 4 lines of dialogue, if that). Olga Kurylenko has an important role as the story develops, but there isn’t much for her character to do, either, other than look concerned and be in love with Tom Cruise. Morgan Freeman is good as always, but he could do this role in his sleep. Actually, he could play this part while in a coma. I’m amused by the fact that he openly admits he only did this movie because he’d never worked with Tom Cruise before. I’d like to see them work together again off a really strong script, but I’ll take what I can get for now, and in this movie we get to see him use a giant double machine gun. So there’s that.

The deliberate pacing. I like that the film takes its time developing the story. It isn’t like most modern sci-fi movies, which rush through plot details so they can get to their action scenes. This film spends most of its runtime developing its story, but as I said, it also includes some really good action sequences.

M83’s score. Technically, the score is credited as “M83 and Anthony Gonzalez & Joseph Trapanese“, but either way, it’s awesome. I though Kosinski’s decision to have Daft Punk score Tron: Legacy was inspired (and resulted in some incredible music that I nominated for Best Original Score that year), and turning to another mostly electronic act/band for this film was equally inspired. They also did an original song for the film, with music from M83 and beautiful vocals by a Norwegian singer named Susanne Sundfør, whom I’d never heard of prior to seeing her name in the credits to this film. This is definitely a soundtrack I will be owning.

I think Anthony Gonzalez has a real future in film scoring if he wants to do more of it, much like I want to see Trent Reznor do more movies. Some musicians’ sounds lend themselves naturally to cinema, and I’m liking this trend of “regular” musicians doing the scores to major Hollywood films. I’ve actually been an advocate of this trend for years, long before it was popular. I was ecstatic when Paul Oakenfold did the score for Swordfish back in 2001, and wanted more electronic artists get into the scoring game. It was cool when Dr. Dre did some work on Bad Boys II in ’03, and I really wanted other hip hop producers (like Timbaland and Pharrell Williams) to try their hands at it as well. And remember, guys like Hans Zimmer and Danny Elfman got their starts as members of a band. Anyway, I’m on a tangent now, but I had to throw it out there that some of us had the foresight to know this kind of innovation in film music was coming.

Here is the most popular track from the Oblivion score, “StarWaves”:

There’s some sweet pure sci-fi in the film. Of course, cloning isn’t a new idea, but I think they found an interesting new twist on the idea. We’ve also seen the concept of hostile machines out to destroy humans before, but these drones are certainly different than, say, Terminators. I would like to have seen a flashback showing how the destruction of the moon created this horrific destruction on Earth, but that would’ve required millions of dollars in additional visual effects. It’s good to leave some things to the imagination, especially when it allows you to save money on the budget. I thought the idea of these giant machines turning sea water into energy was interesting, and I especially loved the shots of the destroyed moon. That’s an idea I hadn’t seen before. The “Tet” alien spacecraft was neat to look at, and I loved the shots where you can see it in space from the ground, which make it look very Death Star-like. The only downside is that we never really get to see what it can actually do. All we really find out is that it’s where they make the Tom Cruise/Andrea Riseborough clones.

WHO ARE YOU IT DOESN’T MATTER who you are!!!

WHAT I DIDN’T LIKE

The script could’ve been better. And it’s not bad -let me be clear on that- but it’s not great, either. I want to see what Joseph Kosinki can do when he’s working from a truly great script, something he’s yet to do. Granted, Oblivion‘s script is a big step up from Tron: Legacy, but it’s just as thin on character, and I left the theater feeling like I didn’t have some of the details I needed to fully dive into this story. Now, a lot of this is Kosinski’s own fault, since the movie is based on an unpublished graphic novel he wrote. It may be that he’s one of those directors who needs to be working off of other people’s material.

That’s really my only big gripe. A better script would have had a tighter story and better character development, which are the two primary issues with the movie. This could’ve been a really special movie with a better script. But again, the script isn’t bad. I’m just hugely annoyed by unrealized potential.

I’m still not convinced Olga Kurylenko is a good actress. She’s beautiful, no doubt, but I’m looking through her credits and I don’t see anything where I remember thinking she was above average. It would appear that Jessica Chastain, Olivia Wilde, Noomi Rapace, Kate Mara, and Mary Elizabeth Winstead all auditioned for this role. I remember the announcement that Chastain had gotten it originally, but was forced to drop out due to scheduling conflicts. But are you kidding?! How were all of those women not cast before Kurylenko?! Yeesh. Even if you wanna call Olga Kurylenko a good actress, she’s undeniably the least talented option on that list. I’d love to know the backstory on this decision.

It’s not a major issue, but there are some plot holes. I don’t feel this is a movie that needs nitpicking, but there are enough plot holes and unanswered questions that I could really have some nitpicky fun if I didn’t enjoy the movie as much as I did. I’ll just throw a few out there as examples: 1) If the “Scavs” are actually just the human survivors, how come early on in the film, they’re shown running around on all fours like animals? And why do they make those weird noises? Why willingly feed into the myth that the clones are being fed instead of exposing them to the truth instead? 2) I’m fascinated by the concept that Joseph Kosinski thinks NASA will be sending a manned mission to one of Saturn’s moons in 2017, despite the fact that NASA has already shut down the shuttle program, meaning it’s 2013 and we can’t even send people into space anymore. 3) Aside from the drones and Creepy Melissa Leo, where are the actual aliens controlling the Tet? Who are they? Where are they from? Or was the entire attack of Earth somehow automated? That would seem to have been highly unlikely.

Also, how do all the Jack Harpers have the same memories and the same photo of he and Victoria on their desks?

Oh, am I supposed to believe that Victoria, in all her time “working” with Jack (a period of some years at least) has not once left the Sky Tower? And she’s FINE with that? Sorry, but even a clone would go stir crazy under those conditions. At what point does that paradise of a home become a prison?

After such a prolonged period of time living miles high in the sky, wouldn’t that fuck up your body in some way? Air sickness? What if one of these clones was born with a fear of heights? Rut roe!

See, you can’t get me started on the nitpicks.

I don’t like that it’s now cool to hate on Tom Cruise. People need to get the fuck off his back, for reals, yo. When did it become trendy to hate and mock Tom Cruise? Seriously. I didn’t get this memo. Was it the Oprah couch incident? Is it the Scientology, which never shows up in his movies? You hear it all the time. Some people who like Oblivion seem to be shocked that they enjoyed a Tom Cruise movie, ashamed of it almost. Tom Cruise is one of the most consistent A-list actors in cinematic history. He does not make bad movies. He’s made a couple of mediocre movies recently (Knight and Day comes to mind), but in my book, he’s made so many classics over the years that he can be forgiven for almost any misstep at this point. He also appears to be one of the nicest, hardest working guys in Hollywood. If I’m a director, this is a guy I want in my corner. So again I ask…what the fuck is your problem, people? If you got beef with Tom Cruise, you got beef with me. And for the love of god, enough with the “Tom Cruise is gay” bullshit. If Tom Cruise is gay, then so am I. Cuz I fuckin love Tom Cruise.

cruise come at meCOME AT ME, BRO!

I’m glad to see Oblivion is doing well at the box office. It means Joseph Kosinski will continue getting work, and it’s nice to see Tom Cruise have a hit that isn’t Mission: Impossible-related (although, technically, Jack Reacher was a pretty big hit last year when you consider its relatively modest budget). As I mentioned previously, Kosinski was one of the directors I had on my Star Wars: Episode VII wish list. I think he would have been perfect for that. As we all know, that’s not happening, but I hold out hope that Kosinski will soon make a film based off a really strong script. If he gets that opportunity, I think the possibilities are endless. Until then, I look forward to whatever he does next.

I can’t say that I loved Oblivion, but I did really like it. And yes, “really liked it” is official reviewing terminology. If you like sci-fi and visually striking movies, it’s a must-watch. I recommend seeing it, and seeing it in theaters. Meanwhile, I am still waiting for the first great film of 2013. Any takers?

IMDb Rating: 7/10

Biggies Consideration: Best Cinematography, Art Direction, Original Score, Original Song, Stuntwork, Visual Effects, Sound, Sound Editing

P.S. What a year this is going to be for big-budget sci-fi! Well, potentially anyway. Oblivion kicks things off, then there’s Star Trek Into Darkness, Pacific Rim, Elysium, Riddick, The Hunger Games: Catching Fire, the Ender’s Game adaptation, and Alfonso Cuaron‘s Gravity later this year. Even M. Night Shyamalan‘s After Earth looks promising. No, I’m not counting The Host, even though it was made by a filmmaker I respect (Andrew Niccol) and stars one of my favorite young actresses, Saoirse Ronan. And that’s not counting two of this year’s biggest comic book movies, Man of Steel and Thor: The Dark World, both of which will be sci-fi heavy.

My next big review should be for Iron Man 3 in a couple weeks, although I’m curious how strong my reaction is going to be to Michael Bay‘s Pain & Gain.

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